The Romans liked to eat well, and some of their choices of food are still regarded as wholesome today, particularly the staples of bread, olives and wine. They also had a liking for pungent fish sauces such as liquamen, muria and – the best-known one – garum. The production of these sauces was a by-product of the fish-processing industry, mainly in Roman settlements along the Atlantic coasts of Spain, Portugal and north Africa, where there was an abundant supply of fish. Fish sauce, especially garum, was so popular that it was exported across the Roman empire as an expensive delicacy. Doubtless in far-flung garrisons on the edges of the empire, many ex-patriot Romans found garum a welcome reminder of home comforts back in Italy.
Garum was produced on an industrial scale in purpose-built factories. One factory was at the Roman town of Baelo Claudia on the coast of southern Spain. The modern village is called Bolonia and is not far from Tarifa, in the region known as Andalusia. Baelo Claudia functioned as a port, trading with north Africa, and fishing, fish processing and the production of garum were also important for the local economy. Archaeological excavations have revealed the remains of an extensive settlement, and many of these ruins, some partially restored, are open to the public.
To say that garum was a by-product of the fish-processing industry is to ignore the gory details. It was the waste parts of fish, particularly the entrails, but also the heads, tails and other scraps that were used. The actual recipe varied according to the type of fish. Sometimes all the scraps were boiled together, but usually no cooking took place. Instead, the raw ingredients were put in a huge container or tank with salt and left to ferment for several months in the very hot climate. When fermentation was complete, the result was strained and the liquid was packaged for export.
Like many food items in ancient times, garum was transported in large, thick-walled pottery vessels called in Latin ‘amphorae’ (singular, ‘amphora’). Amphorae shaped like the one shown in this mosaic were commonly used. This mosaic was part of the floor of a shop or office in the ‘Square of Guilds’ in the Roman port of Ostia, near Rome. There are two palm trees on either side of the amphora, which probably advertised that the business imported dates from Mauretania Caesariensis (abbreviated as ‘M.C.’). This Roman province on the north African coast, roughly equivalent to part of modern-day Algeria, also produced garum for which the same type of amphorae were used. Ships and boats loaded with amphorae full of garum sailed from the coasts of southern Spain and north Africa to other ports in the Mediterranean, and some may even have ventured into the Atlantic to sell their cargo in Britain.
The worm in the banquet
The best-quality garum was expensive and seems to have been valued for its powerful flavour. It was added to all kinds of dishes and probably helped to disguise ingredients that were past their best, especially meat. While masking one evil, it may well have spread another. Recent research on the hygiene of Roman Britain has produced some unexpected results. The hot baths introduced into Britain by the Romans appear to have facilitated the increase of intestinal parasites such as whipworm, roundworm and those causing illnesses such as dysentery. Parasite eggs were spread in communal baths where the water was not changed very often. A study of human burials, latrines and fossilised excrement by Dr Piers Mitchell of Cambridge University also found evidence of an increasing spread of fish tapeworm infestations, and it seems likely that this was due to the universal consumption of fish sauces like garum. Cooking the ingredients would have killed off the parasites, but fermenting raw ingredients allowed the parasite eggs to survive in the fish sauce. The problem may well have been compounded by the practice of spreading human excrement on fields as a fertiliser. Dr Mitchell concludes that although Roman sanitation may have done nothing to improve health, at least people smelled better.
You can read more about the Romans in several of our books, including Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, Dictionary of Roman Religion and Introduction to the Romans. Details are on our website here.